Is Scour 'Napster with movies'?

That's what the Motion Picture Association of America argues in the latest round of a legal battle that could hobble fundamental Internet technologies
Written by Robert Lemos, Contributor

Don't make a selling point out of copyright infringement. That's the message that 30 major media companies -- including movie studios, record companies and music publishers -- are sending to multimedia search portal Scour.

On Thursday, the companies filed suit against Scour, claiming that the Beverly Hills, California company's newest service -- the Scour Exchange or SX -- contributes to copyright infringement.

"Scour is Napster with movies," said Jack Valenti, the chairman and the CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, the association representing seven movie studios in the case.

Yet, the lawsuit is not as cut-and-dried as Valenti and his associates would like the world to believe. Just as the Web gave everyone the ability to easily become a publisher, the Napster client and Scour's SX are giving Netizens the ability to be easily become distributors of content other than text and graphics.

Like Napster, Scour's main service is bringing like-minded users together to trade what's on their hard drive. Rather than require that users create their own FTP servers -- and search for others on the Net -- Scour created a technology that is easier to use.

Scour, which is best known for its multimedia search portal Scour.net, started the Scour Exchange, or SX, in April. The software client, once installed, allows users to connect to other computers and download specific multimedia files from each others' hard drives.

Most of that content, however, belongs to the companies that developed the software, created the music, or produced the movie. That means that most of the content on Scour is being traded in violation of copyright.

Normally, that would make only the users liable for their actions. However, Scour is also benefiting from its users' interest in trading pirated content -- at any point in time, 20,000 to 30,000 users are on the service, boosting Scour's audience numbers.

Such statistics are perhaps the most damning evidence in the case against the company. Understandably, the members of the MPAA, the Recording Industry Association of America, and the National Music Publishers Association are not happy knowing they are missing out on some profits.

"You cannot take property that belongs to someone else and copy it," said Valenti. "When 25,000 people are on the site at the same time, you know there is a lot of copying going on."

The complaint claims that 1.8 million files are available for download. Such numbers are the impetus behind a stampede of lawsuits that the industry is filing against every Internet company that associates itself with one of the new file-sharing or copying technologies.

Next week, the Recording Industry Association of America -- another plaintiff in the Scour case -- will appear in Federal court in San Francisco to ask for a preliminary injunction to stop Napster from facilitating free trading of music on the Internet.

In New York, the MPAA started its federal lawsuit against three New York-based Web sites for contributory copyright infringement because the sites carried copies of a program designed to defeat the encryption on digital video disks. Among the defendants is the publisher of the underground 'zine 2600, Eric Corley, better known by his nom de Net, Emmanuel Goldstein, who hosted -- then, later, linked to -- the source code of the DeCSS program.

Movie and music industries must separate the technology from the actions of a few companies. Scour should not be allowed to benefit from the trade in copyrighted works without reimbursing the owners of those works. On the other hand, the copyright owners should not be able to make compressed formats, such as MP3 and MPEG-4 as well as file-sharing and community-building technologies illegal just to stop consumers from trading in their works.

These are all basic Internet technologies -- Napster and Scour just put them together with a better interface to make the application easier to use and the content easier to access.

A tech-savvy individual could easily mimic both the features of Scour and Napster by running an FTP server on their PC and allowing other to connect to it. Internet Relay Chat rooms could be -- and frequently are -- used to provide community features, and a special keyword could be included in Web pages to make searching using Google or Hotbot easier.

Yet, these lawsuits -- if won by the copyright owners -- could hobble fundamental Internet technologies, not just the illegal behaviour.

Currently, the movie and music industries seem prepared to turn legal tools into illicit products. The complaint filed by the 30 content publishers calls information provided by Scour on making MP3 files from CDs "tools to enable unlawful copying and distribution." And a secure virtual hard disk service with which Scour has partnered, in the minds of the copyright owners, becomes a home for consumers' "pirated files."

And despite many misunderstandings, the DeCSS application is no more than the decoder necessary to turn DVD movies into much smaller DivX -- also known as MPEG-4 -- movies, just as MP3 decoders turn CD music into MP3 music files. As long as both are used for personal use, one would hope that the courts would agree that both are examples of fair use.

In the end, the content owners can punish companies that profit from the free trade of copyrighted works, but such tactics will not work with consumers. Other distributed file-sharing technologies -- with no easy target for a lawsuit -- are readily available today. And with 10 million consumers using Napster, the demand for such technology is obvious.

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